Betty Friedan’s first book, “The Feminine Mystique,” taught us all the slogan “The personal is political.” Predictably, her newest book begins with a personal vignette: “When my friends threw a surprise party on my 60th birthday, I could have killed them all. Their toasts seemed hostile . . . pushing me out of life, as it seemed, out of the race.”
In part, “The Fountain of Age” is a “recovery narrative”: It tells how “Betty” overcame her “denial” of aging; the last sentence reads, “I have never felt so free.” Personalizing the, er, problem of aging no doubt appealed to the author as signature gambit. But Friedan has by now become such a successful and influential activist that her approach through a curtain-raising pout trivializes the issues engaged in her book, and misleads about the sweep and penetration of her inquiry.
Ten years in the making, “The Fountain of Age” illuminates a range of experiences that Americans can expect to undergo during the phase of life that begins with retirement from the occupations of midlife. By the year 2020, one out of five people will be over 60 in all highly-developed countries. Demographically, America is becoming a geriatric society, one that Friedan finds deficient in life-sustaining perspectives--let us go ahead and call them “ideologies"--regarding the last phase of social life. In our society, old age is conceived as deterioration, decline from youth. Friedan calls this view our “age mystique.” Her book shows the usefulness of conceiving old age in other ways: as “another stage of life,” a “third age,” an evolution.
Friedan notes that the definition of “old” has become more elastic since more of us are living longer: “older” used to mean over 40. But “of all the millennia of life on earth, only the women and men now alive can expect a vital third to half of life after they have reproduced,” she reminds us. Roving through the “gerontological underground,” she turns up a good deal of surprising information about how that increasing population is coping with its unique historical circumstances. Work, sexuality, modes of making home, physical and mental health all receive lively consideration.
The book begins with an attack on the youth-centered advertising industry. Why does the media project “no image of age with which I could identify the person I am today?"Friedan wonders. A sampling of magazine ads shows that even the Hathaway shirt man had become “a baby-faced yuppie!” This seems to me the weakest section of the book, since the anorexic, vacant-eyed fashion model of either sex is not really a role model, even for the young; the model’s function is to stimulate desires that drive the consumer economy. But Friedan shows little talent for the analysis of desire. Her literal-mindedness undermines her understanding of witty stratagems against the stereotypes of aging--such as the one adopted by Linda Gray, star of “Dallas,” who celebrates her 27th birthday every year. “What it means to be 46 in 1987 . . . just means being 27 19 times in a row!,” reported an interviewer for McCall’s magazine. Friedan calls this attitude “desperate.”
Friedan is better as a muckraker challenging the disease model by which the conditions of aging are approached by medical and social institutions. Much of her book focuses on what she argues is the misallocation of economic resources to treating elderliness as pathology: for example, the vast sums spent on research into Alzheimer’s disease, which Friedan claims afflicts “only 5%" of people over 65, and the staggering amounts spent on full-care institutions such as nursing homes.
Her criticism will no doubt antagonize concerned readers who notice that 5% of the population over 65 translates to roughly a million Americans; but her point is valid. Identifying old age with horrifying disability impoverishes our national research agenda. We don’t, Friedan observes, have much concrete information about the psychological and sexual functioning of healthy, active people over 65. Moreover, the disease model magnifies the power of negative stereotypes. As Friedan notes, it is easy to make political points against the elderly for “dying beyond (their) means”; the “greedy geezer” has become a national scapegoat.
But as her title suggests, Friedan chiefly means to be the bearer of good news. She assumes that the freedom to choose, and the dignity of being permitted to take risks, are as fundamental to a meaningful way of life in old age as in youth. A capacity for making significant changes is a lifelong trait of human beings, Friedan discovers. She cites a range of amusing individual cases, such as the bar mitzvah at age 70 of Abe Rosenthal, the former editor of the New York Times, who felt he’d been deprived of a religious upbringing by his father’s irreligiousity.
More usefully, she pokes her nose into an extraordinary range of communities where flourishing social experiments maximize options for autonomy even among the frail elderly. Some of these settlements have just happened: most strikingly, the lively communities formed by elderly owners of mobile homes. Others are the result of progressive social policies, such as Oregon’s program offering “assisted living” in shared apartments, with communal meals, nursing and housekeeping services available to promote autonomy as long as possible. Some arrangements stem from the bright ideas of entrepreneurs, such as Elderhostel, a program that provides six-day travel and study opportunities at an international network of 1,800 cultural institutions. (Not to carp, but Friedan’s book could have used an index for the recovery of just such useful information--as well as editing to eliminate an annoying amount of repetition: the legacy, no doubt, of having been cannibalized frequently for serial publication during its long gestation.)
The most absorbing chapters of the book deal with Friedan’s own re-education, her accounts of discoveries about the “reversal of aging” made possible by changes in lifestyle. When she puts herself through Robert Butler’s Geriatric Management Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, for example, her fascination with the physical examination is both instructive and charming--how little most of us, including Friedan, know about our bodies!
Despite her claims to the contrary, Friedan finds aging unacceptable, and her book is perhaps inadvertently honest in showing something rather different from what she tells. “The Feminine Mystique” was an influential attack on the stereotype of the middle-class woman achieving fulfillment in the roles of wife and mother. But Friedan, and feminism, hung on to an idealization of femaleness itself, and assumed that from a new ideology would emerge the possibility of vaguely-conceived “transcendence.” A similar assumption underlies the genre of recovery narrative, which Friedan has used to shape “The Fountain of Age”: that old age is a time of wisdom, egolessness, unimagined sensuality. Has Friedan forgotten that Ponce de Leon’s quest was based on delusion? The tinniness of her attempt to describe a personal experience of self-transcendence (“I have never felt so free”) suggests that the narrative of triumph over adversity quite properly belongs to youth, and that other literary modes might more successfully transmit the clarities of age: the diary (May Sarton’s highly successful genre), the memoir (M.F.K. Fisher’s example), the poem (such as the late work of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens), the book of aphorisms, the book of prayer.
Still, there is instruction to be gained from the partial failure of Friedan’s brave sally into new terrain. Each of us passes this way only once, and most of us, like “Dallas’ ” Linda Gray, keep among the staples of fantasy an image of ourselves as vital and changeless--the self-image that appears in wish-fulfilling dreams. Friedan’s exemplary struggle with the stereotypes of aging that now apply remorselessly to herself is valuable both for what it may achieve and for what it can’t. It may help to bring about social changes that multiply humane life-style choices; it can’t avoid confrontation with the great silence. To her credit, Friedan gives death respectful space in “The Fountain of Age”; and readers not turned off by her occasional nervous preening will find much to enlighten and provoke as they join her in the contemplation of possibilities, even as she feels them draining away.